If you think of yourself as a Marxist or a progressive, you need to read this. (Tea Partiers may want to steer clear.)
Marxist theory can be summarized in two distinct ways.
The first view (held mostly by its detractors) is that Marxism is little more than the politics of resentment — a philosophical justification for the hatred of success by those who failed to achieve it. The politics of resentment offers three different methods for bringing its program of economic jealousy to fruition: Under socialism, the unsuccessful use the power of government to forcibly extract wealth and possessions from the successful, bit by bit until there is nothing left; under the more extreme communism, the very notion of wealth or success is eliminated entirely, and anyone who seeks individual achievement is punished or eliminated; and finally under anarchy, freelance predators would be allowed to steal or destroy any existing wealth or possessions with no interference from the state. Marx himself saw pure communism as the ultimate goal, with socialism as a necessary precursor, and perhaps just an occasional dash of anarchy to ignite the revolutionary fires.
But there is another, more intriguing and less noxious, view of Marxist thought that gets less attention these days because its anachronistic roots in the Industrial Revolution seemingly render it somewhat irrelevant to modern economics. Marx posited that factory workers should own the factory themselves and profit from its output, since they’e the ones actually doing the work — and the wealthy fat cat “capitalists” should be booted out of the director’s office since they don’t really do anything except profit from other people’s labor. Marx generalized this notion to “The workers should control the means of production,” and then extended it further to a national scale by declaring that the overall government itself should be “a dictatorship of the proletariat,” with “proletariat” defined in this context as “someone who actually works for a living.” The problem with this theory in the 21st century is that very few people actually work in factories anymore due to exponential improvements in automation and efficiency, and fewer still produce handicrafts, and the vast majority of American “workers” these days don’t actually create anything tangible. Even so, there is an attractive populist rationality to this aspect of Marxism that appeals to everyone’s sense of fairness — even to those who staunchly reject the rest of communist theory. Those who do the work should reap the benefits and control the system; hard to argue with that.
Although the “factory” is no longer the basic building block of the American economy, Marx’s notion that “The workers should control the means of production” can be rescued and made freshly relevant if it is re-interpreted in a contemporary American context.
Visualize the entire United States as one vast “company,” with citizens as employees and politicians and bureaucrats as managers. Everybody, in theory, works together to make the company successful. But there are two realities which shatter this idealized theory: first, only about half the employees actually ever do any work, while the rest seem to be on permanent vacation or sick leave; and second, our bureaucratic “managers” — just like the wealthy fat cats in Marx’s vision — simply benefit from the labor of others without ever producing anything of value themselves.
Now, this “company” known as the USA doesn’t operate in the way traditional companies operate. In our system, we create only a single product every year, a gigantic pile of money we call the “Federal Budget.” Each “employee” is free to engage in any profitable activity or profession of his choice, just so long as at the end of the year he (or she, obviously) adds his earnings to the collective pile, setting aside a certain amount for living expenses. The “managers” then decide how this gigantic pile of money is spent, presumably to keep the company healthy and strong.
The formula to determine how much each employee gets to keep for living expenses is called “the tax code,” and those who contribute to the national product are called “taxpayers.” The managers deciding how the pile is spent are “politicians,” who are chosen every two years in a shareholders’ meeting called an “election.”
This system worked pretty well for quite a long time — until recently. It is only within the last few years that something remarkable happened: The number of contributing “taxpayers” in the country for the first time has fallen to approximately 50% of the population. Meanwhile, the number of unemployed, retired, disabled or indigent citizens grew, as did the number of citizens who earned so little in part-time or low-paying jobs that they paid no taxes, as did the number of people laboring in the untaxed underground economy, as did the number of bureaucrats.